New readers of IC are often puzzled by the amount of attention devoted to the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Many have never heard of it before, some may confuse it with the Labour Party, and those acquainted with it know it to be little more than a coterie, a group of some five or six hundred that declares it needs a majority (sometimes it says an overwhelming majority) to achieve its object but has not grown significantly larger since it was founded in 1904. Why bother about it?
The Socialist Party is significant because its existence is a demonstration that development through the range of major ideologies is not a straight-line movement toward more effective understanding. It does entail increasing commitment to theory, but to theory that is increasingly remote from practice and experience.
All new entrants to adult society engage in the wholly practical (though usually unsuccessful) endeavour to satisfy their wants within the existing social structure, and the largest single ideological group consists of those who maintain this attitude of mind throughout life. It is they who, without intending it, as a side-effect of the pursuit of personal satisfactions; constitute the substance of society. From this point the first step in ideological development is to a concern with principle; some ways of behaving, and particularly some ways of operating a society, come to be regarded as better than others; not merely more effective but better in that they are more in accordance with the national tradition, or more pleasing to God.
Those who effect the next transition come to be concerned with precise definition of principles. Here the study of morality and the attempt to develop coherent ethical systems replaces the attempt to comply with principles believed to have been laid down by tradition or divine precept. The dominating concern here is with precision, and when this attitude of mind is applied to the material world the result is physical science with its precisely formulated laws.
Theory is now occupying a substantial amount of attention, but it is still subordinate; physical science is valued for its practical usefulness and its theories are judged by their compliance with the results of experiment. Similarly with ethical systems; virtue is recommended on the ground that it will bring peace of mind – a present, practical benefit. At this stage the function of theory is still to serve practice, it is practice that predominates.
With the next transition a reversal occurs; theory comes to predominate over practice. In the field of science this movement is from physical to biological sciences; in these theorising plays a larger part, and experiment a smaller one, than in the physical sciences. In the political field this transition appears as the emergence of the left wing, with its demand that existing society, which with all its faults is demonstrating its viability every day, be replaced by socialism, a system which has only theory to show that it will work at all, let alone be an improvement on present systems.
Socialism first appears in the version put forward by the Labour Party in Britain and its cognate organisations abroad, and this still retains a strong admixture of practical considerations. The next transition is to the attitude of mind appearing in politics as marxist communism, and here practical considerations are reduced to ways of attracting support for theory; communists take part in reformist movements and what they call “the day-to-day struggle” not – as labour-socialism does – for the sake of what can be achieved in this way but as a means of attracting the support needed to put their revolutionary theories into practice.
In the movement through this series of stages, from the primordial attitude of mind to that appearing in the political field as marxist communism, theory has not only come to occupy an increasing amount of attention, it has also become increasingly remote from the practical considerations it is intended to serve. Unthinking people go directly for what they want; as thinking enters the satisfaction obtained is said to be greater but the route to it is certainly longer and less direct. Virtue and adherence to principle are intended to bring increased content of mind here and now and perhaps they do; what is certain is that they offer a more round-about route to satisfaction than does direct action. Science brings material benefits but in a way that entails postponement of satisfaction in order to accumulate the resources science requires. With the transition to the ideologies of labour-socialism and communism the practical reference becomes still more indirect, to the extent that those who engage in the activity do not expect to share in the material benefits themselves. Few people who have been labour-socialists or communists long enough to have grasped the actual position of these movements expect establishment of the new society in their own lifetimes.
With the transition to the attitude expressed by the Socialist Party of Great Britain the predominance of theory and the focusing of attention upon it to the exclusion of practical concerns becomes all but fully explicit. This party takes no part in any activity intended to improve conditions here and now, it declares that existing society cannot usefully be reformed or even revolutionised; the only useful action is to abolish it and replace it with a society in agreement with Socialist Party theory. The party has been hard at work since 1904 and has made no perceptible progress, but this does not trouble its members at all.
In the movement along the ideological range – in political terms, from extreme right to extreme left – attention comes to be more and more focused upon theory, until with the Socialist Party theory excludes other considerations; at this point the only concern is to put forward a theoretical system which cannot be defeated in argument. In the Socialist Party’s own words, its activity consists of “putting the socialist case.” This activity is justified on the grounds that it is designed to produce a majority of people who, understanding and accepting “the case for socialism,” will go on to establish a socialist society, but if this were the object of the activity then the failure to make any perceptible progress in eighty years would be cause for concern, and it is not. In the party’s words: “the numbers don’t matter, it’s the validity of the ideas that counts.” Here theory has become its own reward, its own purpose and its own end.
It is because the Socialist Party of Great Britain, in its detachment from the concerns of the general body of the people, demonstrates the outcome of the flight into theory that IC spends time and attention on it, showing that even by theoretical criteria the theory on which the Socialist Party prides itself is unsound.
from Ideological Commentary 12, August 1984.